Sensible Pinyin Course: Tricky Consonants Z, C, S

Z, C and S are the final pinyin consonants we’ll be covering.

In the last section on Zh, Ch, Sh we looked at the following relationship:

Zh = J
Ch = Q
Sh = X

But with the tongue tip curled back in a higher, curled position against the hard palate

Using Chinese sounds to explain other Chinese sounds is a sensible shortcut to take. Let’s do another.

Today’s lesson is about Z, C and S. Yesterday was Zh, Ch and Sh. Huh.

Did you notice that Z, C, S are like Zh, Ch, Sh without the h? Top of the class!

That’s not accidental. Z, C and S are similar but with a different tongue position that makes these sounds “sibilant” – ie. More “hissy” like a snake.

Z, C and S  are all pronounced with the tip of the tongue close to or touching the back of the front upper teeth but are otherwise the same. This gives us:

Z = Zh

C = Ch

S = Sh 

but with the tip of the tongue close to or touching the back of the front upper teeth.

Let’s have a listen, replicate the sounds and do some quizzes.

Z: “ds” as in cards, cats, hats or pizza.

Za, Ze, Zi , Zu

This sound a lot like a buzzing sound such as that a bee makes. You can think of it as “zzz” or “ds” if that helps.

Let the tip of the tongue touch against the back of the upper teeth to obstruct the flow of air. As you pronounce the “ds” noise release the tongue so that it vibrates. Don’t force air out, there’s no exhalation – hold your hand in front of your mouth to check this.
The “ds” sound is actually in English but not at the front of words as in Chinese. We often end words like cards, cats and hats with the “ds” sound. The Chinese is similar but a bit more buzzed.

C: “ts” as in tsunami (ok that’s not fair!) and it’s heavy.

Ca, Ce, Ci, Cu

This one is definitely not an English sound! Also, be careful of the fact that the letter C is used – there’s really no resemblance.

The best way to get a handle on the Chinese C is to learn the Chinese Z and then pronounce it with a strong exhalation.

As with Z, let the tip of your tongue touch the back of the upper teeth to obstruct breath. If you hold in the right position you won’t be able to breath through your mouth (don’t practice this too long!). As you pronounce the “ts” sound release the tongue and forcefully let air through.

Whereas the Z buzzed the C will explode out forcefully.

S: “ss” as in song, sent, simple.

Sa, Se, Si, Su

This one is actually really simple. This is the same “ss” sound as in English. What a let down after all these scary looking Xs, Qs and Cs!

Place the tip of your tongue at the back of the upper teeth and then let the air between the tongue and teeth, much as you would with the English S.

The reason S is grouped here is because of the initial tongue position touching the back of the upper teeth. It’s not a “difficult” sound because we have it in English.

All three start in the same position, tongue tip on the back of the front teeth. With Z we release the tongue slightly and vibrate air across it. With C we let air explode out in a puff. With S we let air slip through in a hissing “ss” noise.

And…that’s it!

OK – now we’ll just cover the next 20 really hard consonants in the next section and we’ll be all set!

I’m messing with you. We’re done.

Wait. What? That’s it? We have done all the consonants? And all the hardest sounds? That’s it? I thought Chinese was ridiculously hard? Huh… well, that’s a pleasant surprise!

Now what? Well, first finish off this lesson’s exercises at the bottom of this page. They’ll be among the hardest you’ve done you’ll encounter j, q, x and zh, ch, sh and z, c, s!

You’ve already worked on the difference between j, q, x and zh, ch, sh in the last section’s quiz. If those sounds are still a little fuzzy for you complete that lesson’s quiz a few more times – at least until you are comfortable. Then come back to this lesson’s quiz where we add in z, c and s as well.

Once you’ve finished this lesson quiz I have some serious homework for you: take a break. Put your feet up. You have done exceedingly well to get this far.

In the next sections we’ll have a look at the “compound finals”. That’s a fancy way of talking about two or more vowels but together. A word like bao uses a compound final – in this case the compound is -ao. B + a + o = b + ao where ao is a “compound final”.

Neat thing? -ao sounds like a+o put together. Nice. So we’ll cut through the compounds fast in the next section.


This next set of questions is going to be the toughest so far. It has j,q,x / zh,ch,sh / z,c,s. These are the hardest sounds to distinguish. Good news – once you are consistently getting a high score in this test you’ve completed the hardest parts of Chinese pronunciation and sound discrimination.

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